“And no one puts new wine into old wineskins.” This remark of Jesus comes in response to a question asked by the Pharisees about fasting. The laws concerning fasting in the time of Jesus were ancient and many. The Pharisees saw themselves as the keepers of the law. John the Baptist’s disciples practiced those laws, as did the Pharisees. The Pharisees, in their self-righteousness, criticize Jesus’ disciples for not observing the ancient laws concerning fasting. Jesus’ response seems strange on the surface, but as always, it has a much deeper meaning.
Jesus uses a bridal metaphor here implying a new relationship of love between God and his people. Jesus is the bridegroom in this new relationship. Jesus represents the fulfillment of the old and the joyous beginning of something new. There can be no assimilation of the old Pharisaic practices of fasting beyond the coming of the Messiah, the Bridegroom. That would be like trying to sew new cloth patches on old garments, or like pouring new wine into old wine skins. The result would be the destruction of both cloth and wine. He says that while the Bridegroom is with them, they cannot fast, rather, were to celebrate his presence. But he also said that the day would come when he would be taken away from them, “and then they will fast on that day” (verse 20).
Jesus was not saying that there is no longer any purpose to fasting. Fasting, done for the right reasons, not just because of some “law,” is still an efficacious form of prayer. It can even be an imitation of Christ. The scriptures and the early Church Fathers tell us that it can be a valuable form of penance. It is one of three ways that we can express our sorrow for our sins: fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. We are sinners after all. Our sins are often the result of habits that we have developed over time and they are hard to break.
Fasting, if done as a form of prayer, is a very powerful way of focusing our hearts on God, rather than the pleasures of this world. It can be a form of penance for our sins. It does not have to be fasting from food. If I see that there is something in my life, some habit that causes me to sin, or to fall short of my own dignity, it would be a good thing to fast from that in some way, and to use the time of fasting to contemplate what that habit is doing to me, to my family and friends. But more importantly, we should use this “fasting” as a form of prayer, asking God to heal us of that old habit, to make of us a new wine skin ready to receive the new wine of his forgiveness and grace. God will attend to us in such “fasting” just as he did to Jesus in the desert before he began his public ministry.
Lord, help us to see you always as the bridegroom and to be joyous with you in all that we do. But give us also the grace of wisdom to see the old, sinful, and destructive habits that take us away from you. Grace us with the courage to fast and to repent of those things, so that we can be new wine skins worthy of the precious wine of your forgiveness. We ask this in your name, Jesus. Amen!
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